Charlotte – What You Sow You Will Reap
The sowing began in Clavering Town, in England, in the year of our Lord 1857. In hindsight, some of the things that I share, I regret. But once begun, there is no going backwards.
While walking to work, I overhear the following statement.
‘Have a gazer at that gorgeous piece of skirt!’
I turn away, blushing, aware I’m the only woman on the street. The unshaven, brawny Essex lad who has made the comment flatters my ego.
His friends turn in my direction, ogling me while I daintily glide along the cobbled street. My new leather pumps noiselessly step forwards, as if I were oating on air.
I pass the three louts, appearing to ignore them. Their dishevelled appearance and loud-mouthed comments speak loudly of their class—ruffians who should be in the slum areas, not hanging about on a Clavering main street.
I am aware the fragrance of lavender water dabbed on my wrists and neck might reach them now that I am ahead of them. The scent smells fresh and youthful to me. I contemplate what it conveys to them and increase my pace, careful on the uneven road. I must not embarrass myself by tripping in front of them.
They are following me. I snigger.
I can see, out of the corner of my eye, that they are poking each other. By lifting my skirt I hasten my pace, determined to keep ahead, petticoats now showing beneath the gabardine fabric.
‘Quite the looker that one,’ smirks the first lad with bedraggled hair. His Essex accent is rough and his clothes are shabby—he’s not in the least refined.
‘You haven’t a chance, man. She’s not from the scrubs like you,’ the second one says with a sly smile.
‘Watch out, Buddy, or I’ll get you where it hurts,’ sneers the first lout, jerking at the braces of his high-waist britches, which already appear to be too short.
The third, with a smug leer, challenges his cronies, ‘Get me alone with that lassie, and I’ll show her a good time, aye.’
His dungarees are corduroy, the fabric faded and worn thin. On his head, he wears a tartan tam-o’-shanter, as many Scottish young men might if they have any association with the Scottish military regiments.
I turn away, keeping my distance.
Still they follow.
‘A good time, eh? I could give her a riot of a time!’ taunts the first.
‘Why would she choose you, Mackenzie? English lassies aren’t into pipes and jigs and one or two flings.’
‘You haven’t seen me jig with a lassie yet, aye, that’s da truth.’
‘I don’t ever want to see you at it, believe me!’
The three cronies are level with me, swaggering along the street, trying to attract my attention. Their eyes are leering and gawking as I glide along.
I avert my eyes from them. Their taunts are rude, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable on the street now. I am quite pleased when I reach the millinery boutique’s door. With a hard push of my gloved hand, it opens and closes behind me with a thud.
I am safe.
I beckon my friend Becky, urging her to join me at the window. We hide behind the nets, peering through the lace.
‘What’s happening, Charlotte?’ Her tone is hushed, hand to her throat. ’What are we looking at?’
I point to the lads loitering on the pavement. ‘See those louts out there.’ She nods. ‘Shush now, or they will hear us!’
She nods again.
‘Well, they followed me, making rude comments. I was quite embarrassed.’
The young men are standing in a circle, swapping opinions. Becky and I can overhear their conversation. I’m aware I am blushing.
‘That floozy’s very pleasant to the eye, and she walks in such a boldly flirtatious way.’
‘She’d be a snob for sure. What do you reckon—eighteen or nineteen?’
‘Whatever! She’d be fun,’ the faded-corduroy one surmises. ‘She will be—for some lucky bugger.’
‘Probably a first-class dandy,’ the high-waist-britches one, suggests. ‘She wouldn’t choose any of us.’
‘That’s for sure—nor would she have anything to do with sailors or miners.’
‘That’s for sure. A bit posh for us.’
‘Let’s go and find a not-so-cultured floozy.’
‘How about the pubs, where the good-time bawds hang out?’
‘That’s more like it. The pubs will be open in a couple of hours.’
I drag Becky away from the window.
‘Those loonies followed me the length of the High Street.’
‘How dreadful, Charlotte.’ Becky grins, having enjoyed the episode. ‘Do you know what a “good-time baud” is? You haven’t heard that term before, have you?’ she asks.
‘Not before today.’
Becky whispers something about women streetwalkers. Embarrassed and knowing it was something unseemly, I giggle, covering my lips with my gloves.
We peek through the curtains, watching the high jinks as the young men, who like roosters in a hen run, strut down the Roman roadway, taking turns leaping and kicking their boots together as though celebrating a successful conquest.
Becky grabs my hand. ‘How gross!’ she mutters, shoving me from the window and leading me past the counter.
The sales assistant greets us with a cheerful smile. ‘Good morning, Charlotte and Becky. You’re a bit late today, Charlotte?’
‘I was delayed by some urchins and couldn’t escape.’
The prim spinster ings her hands to her lips, gasping, ‘How terrible, Charlotte!’
Becky and I feign amusement.
The day is beginning well, and we slip behind the brocade curtain that divides the millinery factory from the sales department, smirking.
‘Morning, Miss Charlotte and Miss Becky. Are you ready for another day designing our summer collection?’ Miss Brownie, the senior milliner, greets us.
I smile at the joke. To design and construct bonnets is my ambition, but I am not qualified to design yet. My task of constructing bonnets includes applying glue to the linings then pasting it on to the outer fabric from inside. The best part is stitching the ribbon, nets, and bows to the hat before sewing on the labels.
After a bonnet is complete, Becky and I put it on in front of the sales assistant, trying to discover the best angle to wear it and believing we are giving her ideas to share with the ladies who shop at the emporium.
‘I can dream of designing beautiful bonnets, can’t I?’
The milliners discourage outlandish designs, backing off when I ask them to construct them. Often, I am told my designs are unworkable due to my outlandish ideas.
‘Will ladies not buy these flowery designs?’ I ask.
‘I wouldn’t think so. Not even for a sunhat!’
‘I’d wear one as a sun hat,’ Rosie, another apprentice, says.
‘As would I,’ says Becky, encouraging me. ‘I like your taste in clothes, Charlotte. One day you will be a real lady.’
‘I hope so,’ I murmur, knowing my life is ahead of me. When qualified, I can break free of the usual restraints the young women of my generation have. I have ambition.
I begin the day sweeping wasted fabrics into the rag bag. There is much to learn, and I intend to complete my apprenticeship, eventually making my name designing millinery. Fortunes can be made by top- label designers.
Miss Brownie stands behind me, eying my costume. ‘You are looking flash today.’ I smile, pleased with the compliment. ‘But you’re showing your ankles. Tut-tut, Charlotte.’
‘I like to be tastefully dressed and to keep in style,’ I say, lifting my nose high, practising sounding upper class.
‘That is evident. You are certainly in style this May.’
‘Thank you. I love the fashion this season. Jackets have elegant clips and felt buttons. Come, feel how soft my new suede leather boots are.’
Miss Brownie isn’t easily impressed. ‘It is provocative to display your ankles.’ She gives me a steely glare.
In my opinion, she is rather old-fashioned.
‘I’m not intending to be provocative,’ I coyly chime, fully aware that the swing of my garments turns the eyes of the lads in the town. Doing so makes life interesting. That is all there is to it.
Lately when I have stepped out, my parents—Charles and Lydia Merton—have restricted my walks.
My mother justifies this by explaining, ‘We are endeavouring to ensure that your chastity and purity is intact for marriage.’
I haven’t untoward motives and object to her insinuations. But my mother is insistent, which is why Joe now chaperones me. Apart from walking alone to the local millinery boutique, my social life is restricted by constant chaperoning.
My mother has recently shared other things she believes I need to understand.
‘Charlotte dear, you have lived a sheltered, pious life, which may have left you unprepared for the temptations of adulthood.’
‘I am not tempted by anything, Mother, except chocolate delicacies from the baker.’
She ignores my flippancy. ‘How a young woman dresses speaks about her intentions.’
‘I don’t agree,’ I object. ‘It’s fashionable to display ankles. What I wear shouldn’t speak of the type of person I am.’
My mother is persistent. ‘First impressions affect a young woman’s life in ways she cannot imagine.’
‘Society inflicts gossip and cruel labels upon those who bend the rules, even on those who are ignorant of them.’
I ignore the advice, considering it irrelevant, as my values are pure and righteous. Neither am I guilty of being ignorant regarding society’s standards. I’ve been brought up as a churchgoing child under the teaching of Christianity. My skirt length remains as this season’s fashion prescribes. I am eighteen and old enough to make my own decisions.
About Joe and Me
We are first cousins who live next door to each other. During our childhood, we ran between each other’s homes. Joe’s adventurous life involved running about the streets with his two older brothers, climbing trees, chasing rabbits, fishing in the creeks, and blowing eggs—so my childhood consisted of boyish activities rather than girlish interests.
As a woman, I no longer have an interest in masculine activities, but instead in discovering out-fits, hair styles, and learning etiquette. Now Joe and I ramble the Clavering pathways or wander through the town window-shopping. My mother doesn’t object because I have a family member as my companion.
‘I’m fortunate, Joe,’ I explain.
‘In what way, Lottie?’ he asks, turning to me.
‘Ma and Pa believe you are the best escort for me.’
‘I wonder why that is?’ He pokes me the way he did when we were children.
‘Because you protect me.’
‘Whatever they believe I need protecting from.’
‘Perhaps it’s other men who have untoward intentions?’
‘Don’t be silly, Joe. Anyway, going walking on Sunday afternoons is the highlight of my week.’
‘Imagine if they made you walk with a spinster? How would that be?’ Joe asks.
‘Like Miss Brownie . . . Not the least enjoyable. I delight in being out with you.’
‘As do I, Lottie.’
When Uncle Joseph was widowed (his wife died having a baby), my mother opened our home to their family, preparing meals, doing the washing, and cleaning for them until they could manage for themselves. Even now, Joe and his father have their evening meal with us.
Joe and our fathers work as general labourers in Clavering warehouses. Sometimes working at builders’ yards or occasionally making deliveries with horse and cart, they are aware of their responsibilities in providing for their families.
He is tall and slim, with thick fair hair. He dresses smartly, being a self-assured nineteen-year-old. His modern moustache suits him, adding to his swanky look. He absentmindedly twists it, creating a curly point at both ends, which is a quirky modern style. It isn’t only his looks and taste in clothing I appreciate, but his direct manner, which speaks to me of emotional strength.
He, like me, knows what he wants in life.
‘You are my friend, Lottie. You’re solely mine. You will always be my girl.’
‘Really? How sweet.’ I am flattered.
‘I mean it, Lottie.’
‘Of course, you do,’ I say. ‘Are you aware of what I find special about you, Joe?’
‘It’s your gentlemanly ways and simple courtesies.’ I pucker my lips, teasing him.
‘I do work at being a gentleman, Lottie.’
‘Did you learn by watching my father? He’s always been considerate with our mother, Hannah, and me.’
‘Perhaps I did,’ he replies, somewhat pleased.
Back then I didn’t realise he had a plan or strategies for achieving his goals. How innocent I was. I now realise he had his life’s experiences planned . . . and I was part of them.
Initially I hadn’t noticed the small changes—like when he guided me along the cobble steps of the high street by positioning his hand on the small of my back.
It sent tingles down my spine, much like a tickle. I turned to him, wondering, and he grinned, enjoying making me jiggle.
Later, he took my hand, and we wandered amongst shoppers flocking to the markets in the town square. I held up our hands to let him know I was aware of his doing so, passing him a questioning glance.
Never slow to explain, he said, ‘I don’t want you getting bewildered by the crowds, Lottie.’
‘Bewildered by the crowds? In the town markets? How comical.’ I laughed, then asked, ‘Do you see me wandering around as though I don’t know where I’m going. Are you the gallant knight who arrives and rescues me?’
‘I meant, I don’t want you being whisked away by some other guy.’
That gets me thinking. His possessiveness is like that of a brother or like caring for your betrothed.
Maybe my mind is playing tricks, seeing something where there is nothing. I decide his continuing habit of holding my hand requires clarifcation. ‘Joey, what are you up to?’
His cheeky wink is his only reply.
‘You are still holding my hand, and there is no one near enough to whisk me away. I can walk unassisted, you know.’ I notice I am becoming all prim and proper—quite the young lady, but still unable to sti e my laughter.
Joe’s serious attitude puts an end to my giggles. ‘I like holding your hand when we walk. You aren’t perturbed, are you?’
Perturbed by Joe? Never! The attention is flattering. I am certain my dark-brown eyes are sparkling with happiness. I am fluttering my long eyelashes while tossing my head, a gesture I have observed other young women make when they are with young men. Recently, I had even practiced in front of the mirror in my mother’s room.
‘I’m not upset at all.’ I snicker, adding a skip to my walk.
Holding my hand in his strong hand is something a male chaperone might do, especially if they are cousins or brothers. We explore the streets hand in hand, gazing at the houses where the wealthy families live.
I hear a thrush’s song behind a high privet hedge. I am short in stature and am unable to see the bird as we walk beside the hedge. I repeatedly jump on the tips of my toes to catch a glimpse, taking care not to fall into the privet or damage my new leather pumps.
‘You need to grow a few more inches,’ he says as he laughs. I agree.
Noting my difficulty looking over the fence, he turns towards me. ‘Let me lift you,’ he suggests, placing his hands around my waist and raising me high. His fingers beneath my ribs cause me to wriggle, as if he were tickling me.
‘Stop it, Joe, I can’t stand it. I’m ticklish!’
He abruptly releases me, and I drop to the ground, almost toppling over, but he grasps me around the waist to break the fall. Awkwardly I stagger, losing my balance in trying to nd my feet. Joe grips me by the shoulders.
I tumble into him face to face, leaning on him for support. His usual self-assured pale face turns brilliant red after the impact.
‘I’m grateful you grabbed me, or I would have ended up in the dust.’ I notice his strange look, saying, ‘What’s up? Are you embarrassed by my fall?’
He lowers his eyes, turning away without replying. I am not sure whether he is anxious for me or affected by something else.
‘Thankfully, you caught me before I fell,’ I say.
‘It was close,’ he replies, regaining his composure and straightening his overcoat and trousers before we resumed our walk.
Nothing was quite the same after that episode.
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